By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS ARE NEGOTIATIONS between primary, secondary, and even tertiary levels of information, and how they will be arranged in a frame. You either feature or mute that information in order to direct attention to the primary story you’re trying to tell. The simplest example of this process is the selective focus engineered into many shots, with important details being rendered in sharpness while the rest of the competing data goes soft to help isolate the main message of the picture. In its simplest application this means a clearly focused foreground and a blurred background.
The blur used to be the eye’s clue that the information in that part of the picture was not a priority. Thinking in terms of portraits, for example, your subject is clearly defined, with the space behind it dulled or diminished. You make that choice by selecting your depth of field and shoot accordingly. However, recent trends in the making of a photograph have elevated the status of the blurs themselves to something that needs to be chosen, or shaped for artistic purposes. In other words, the part of an image that is inherently unimportant, by virtue of being out of focus, is now a source of attention as to what kind of blur is being created. This formerly fussy concept of bokeh is popping up in more and more advertising copy for the sale of lenses. A given piece of glass is now touted as having great bokeh, which somehow makes it more desirable than some other piece of glass.
Bokeh is really nothing more than the quality of the shapes that occur when a particular lens breaks up light in its non-focused areas. Some people use the terms “buttery” or “geometric” or “dreamy” to describe the work of a given optic, and some lenses are actually marketed based on how this texture is rendered. I can only speak to this fascination from my own viewpoint, and so you have to plug in your own approach to photography, and whether the non-essential part of a picture is now, strangely, important to you.…important enough to influence your purchase of one hunk of gear over another. I admit that some bokeh acts as a beautiful backdrop to a foreground subject, but I also contend that, as seen in the above image, some lenses can actually render it in a way that is distracting, even irritating. However, whether I admire the swirls and ellipses of some forms of bokeh, I don’t see it as anywhere near as important as what I’m trying to feature in front of it. If all things in a frame are of equal importance, why not just shoot everything at f/11 and make sure it’s all recorded at the same sharpness?
I think that, in photography, as in many other art forms, we can become fascinated with effects rather than substance, and that, if you don’t know what you’re trying to get a picture to say, you can become more interested in how cool something looks instead of what a picture’s narrative is supposed to be. Bokeh can be lovely, but giving it too much prominence is a little like sitting in a theatre and intensely watching what the third Roman to the left is doing with his toga while Marc Antony is at center stage delivering his big speech. Things in a good picture must be arranged in a hierarchy, some priority of intentions, in order to communicate effectively. And if I have my choice between a bird and a blur, I will unapologetically choose the bird every time.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE WAY THE EMERGING ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY SOUGHT TO LEGITIMIZE ITSELF in the nineteenth century was to cloak itself in the vocabulary of painters, to certify its value in the same terms that were applied to the art people feared it was conspiring to replace. This meant speaking of perspective, tone, realism, and all the other trigger words of the dauber. It also meant that, in the early days of recording media (paper, glass, eventually celluloid), that the formal occasion of making a portrait was also, as it was for the painter, a slow, deliberative process. Early photo portraits had to be “managed to death” since exposures took a minute or longer, certainly more “instantaneous” than a painted effigy but still requiring that the subject formally “sit” for the occasion.
After 1900, as film speeds and supplemental lighting evolved, the portrait could be mechanically done with less preparation, but the formality, the august occasion of having one’s picture “made” persisted. But whereas a painted or an early photographic portrait, for folks in the Victorian era, may very well have been the only official record of a person’s face over a lifetime, snapshot technology made it possible to have hundreds, later thousands of portraits of oneself shot from cradle to grave. And yet, it’s only in recent years that the traditional idea of a “serious” portrait has begun to finally fade from general use, with even formal photogs breaking free of the studio walls, taking wedding or graduation shots by quiet streams or rolling hills.
Which, to me, is all to the good. I believe in trying to select the right facial expression from settings in which the subject is in his or her natural element, extracting the optimum view from the rolling movie of that person in action, in motion. It’s the best weapon against the powerful, if unconscious reflex people fall into once they fixate on the fact that they are having their picture “taken”. For reasons of shyness, vanity, or the urge to put forth their “best angle”, people cinch up and pose to at least some degree, making their face just that much less natural than it is when they have better things to worry about. Taking a 100% candid snap is nearly impossible unless the subject has something to do beyond waiting for the dreaded shutter click.
In the image shown here, I didn’t have to tell the subject to “act like you’re watching a bird”, because she was, in fact, watching a bird. She doesn’t have to portray a version of herself: she just has to be. The onus is rightfully on me to catch her looking like herself, not to attempt to replicate that self within the trappings of a studio in some kind of weird round of Let’s Pretend. It also helps that this setting isn’t my eye’s first acquaintance with her face, but rather a picture shot after months of watching her in the act of pursuing her passion. The old mind-set of portrait making from the 1800’s is thus reconstituted. My lengthy preparation and study for making the portrait happens ahead of the actual act of capture, with the physical execution of the shot taking as little time as possible, the better to relax the quarry and thus fend off any unconscious play-acting.
Ask yourself which your subject would prefer: being forced to simulate some version of themselves in a formal setting or being passively recorded while in the act of being themselves by a nearly invisible and non-invasive process. Portraits aren’t supposed to be homework and they aren’t effective when done solely on the photographer’s terms. Know your subject, get out of the way, and enjoy the surprises which are bound to result.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE A GOOD SCRAP. We spar about gear: we argue about technique: we defend both film and digital with equal fervor: we crab about the purity of our own artistic vision (as opposed to the pedestrian pap of other shooters).
We even squabble about what blur is. Or isn’t.
If you have an afternoon to burn sometime (and if you care) Google the phrase “bokeh versus blur” and get ready to rumble. Notwithstanding the fact that few outside photography’s elite inner circle had even heard of the word “bokeh” (in the original Japanese, literally “blur” or “haze”) until about a decade ago, many of us are now choosing up sides about what it, and blur, are…or are not. Does it finally matter? Depends on who you ask, and whether they’ve had a good night’s sleep and a solid breakfast. But let’s put on our waders and tenderly tiptoe into the slipstream. Watch out for alligators.
I would think of blur as any unfocused or under-defined area within a photograph, a place where textures become soft enough for their details to be indistinguishable. It is, essentially, a visual condition. Think of the trees behind your portrait subject that turn to soft mush when you set for a shallow depth of field. Because you want to showcase a face and not a tree, right? Simple.
By comparison, bokeh is the distinct pattern or texture of the blur, something which may or may not be considered “desirable” by photographers, as if it were another design element to be shaped to complement the foreground. This could be anything from replications of the shape of your aperture (little floating pentagrams) to egg-shaped dots in a swirl, or a million other things, depending on the performance and design of your particular lens. It is, as compared to mere blur, a visual quality.
Now, I realize that merely trying to assign simple definitions to these two things will automatically alienate me from a planet-sized portion of the internet, so go to it. But here’s the point I really want to make.
Blur or bokeh, their usefulness, their positive or negative effect, even their potential aesthetic appeal….these are all judgement calls and are totally in the eye of the beholder. Some of us will actually choose a lens based solely on what kind of bokeh it will produce. Conversely, others will never assign any artistic value or priority to the effect whatsoever…and that’s completely fine. I myself have definitely lived on both sides of the streets in this issue, and so, by turns, the whole thing both is and isn’t important, based on what the job at hand is. The main reason I study the debate is because it shapes the intentions of photographers, and so is part of an overall understanding of why we shoot, which is the main idea of this little small-town newspaper.
Bokeh has come to the fore in recent years because photographers seem to want to shape it no less than any other visual element within the frame. And, like anything else about our art that gets discussed to death, it can create clannish, even clownish posturing about what’s more “authentic”, a discussion which takes us nowhere fast. Finally, blur elements are just like trees, furniture, or buildings. Want ’em in your picture? Put ’em there, and God Bless. However, the only thing we don’t want to do, ever, is to try to develop a list of commandments, of things that are always good or always bad for the making of pictures. That shuts down discussion, and eventually clamps down on creativity.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE EXCLUSIVITY AND ONE–UPMANSHIP which used to divide photographers into warring camps over lenses (it must be primes!) or cameras (I myself have always been a Leica man!) has met its match in yet another pompous arena of dubious distinction.
I’m speaking of the trendy and tawdry world of blur snobs.
You remember blur, right? All that stuff in your pictures that isn’t, you know, sharp? You wanted some of it in there to set your focused subject apart or pop it forward, so you set your depth of field appropriately. So we’re done now, right?
Wrong. Because you might not have the cool kind of blur in your pictures. Cool blur is called “bokeh”, because we said so, and its various swirls, refractions and currents means you must now master blur the way you once sought to master focus. The thing you once regarded as mere negative space is now incredibly artistic negative space. Or you’d better spend money until it is.
The world’s bokeh bullies eventually started to aggressively market glass guaranteed to deliver lots of it, for lots of dollars. The cool-blur movement revived interest in the 19th-century Petzval lenses, great, fast optics for portraits which, as a by-product of their slightly flawed design, delivered big-time swirly blur. Thing is, engineering new lenses to do that one “wrong” thing on purpose meant coughing up an astounding amount of scratch for a lens that is, essentially, a one trick pony. Repeat after me, children: hipness is never cheap.
Turns out that, instead of popping for anywhere from two to six hundred peppers for “cool insurance”, you can get the same effect from a lens that’s so globally plentiful that it can be had for under $35.00. Enter the humble Helios.
Helios lenses were among the most highly produced lenses in Soviet history, marching out of USSR factories pretty much non-stop from 1958 to 1992. They were based on several different Carl Zeiss Biotar designs, and, while mostly used on Russian SLRs, were also built for select Pentax models. One of the most popular, the 44M, seen here, was the kit lens for generations of cameras, shooting fully manual as a 58mm prime.
Shooting the Helio wide open at f/2, and with a decent separation between foreground and textured backgrounds, you’ll get a bokeh that looks like a gazillion little circles that spray into a swirl as they move toward the edge of the frame. As the rose image attests, it does look very nice, just not $600 worth of nice. You also need the patience of a brain surgeon to get used to nailing the focus. That and consistent access to large depositories of Crown Royal. But I digress.
Helios lenses are perfectly serviceable glass for general purposes, although they are a little soft at the open end. The Russian Federation, which, if you haven’t heard, is a little cash-strapped these days, is sitting on millions of these puppies, so prices are low, lenses can be easily adapted to most camera brands (mine came battle-ready for Nikon), and shipping is often free. For between 35 and 50 bucks, they’re an occasional guilty pleasure. On the other hand, hocking your houseboat or delaying heart surgery for the new toys marketed by the blur snobs to do the same thing is both needless and nuts.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YARD SALES AROUND THE WORLD abound with unwanted gadgets that, just a few year prior, seemed utterly indispensable, be they electric olive pit extractors or deluxe coffee foam skimmers. You know the kind of toys I mean– those glorious, gleaming, largely single-function devices that dazzle us on all-night infomercials and seem like depraved decadence after we’ve hooked them up a few times and found that, hey, you can still access a new batch of carrots with a 79-cent manual can opener and use the regained counter-space for something more essential. Like food.
And, of course, these one-trick ponies of gimmickdom are not only found in the world’s greatest kitchens, but also on dusty shelves in the closets of disaffected photographers, who, like any humans, are subject to the lure of the new. Hey, I get it. It’s fun to have a special, fresh, whirly-twirly glowing godalmighty gizmo, that little add-on that creates amazing effects, amusing simulations, crazy textures. Lens manufacturers are particularly great at getting the fishhook into the mouths of photogs when it comes to toy time, since no one responds better to the latest optical trick. But, as in the case of the pit extractor, you have to ask yourself how much permanent, sustaining, everyday use you will get out of a given piece of gear.
One great way lens manufacturers have devised to separate you from your cash is to introduce a new version of a classic or “art” lens that re-creates an effect that is associated with the halcyon days of early photography. One such lens is the Petzval, named after Josef Petzval, who developed it around the 1840’s. The optics of the Petzval are particularly seductive for portraitists, as they separate your subject from the ambient scenery by rendering it sharp at the center while making all background information look like a swirling blur. Very artsy, very specialized, and very, very expensive.
Neo-Petzvals are all-manual (niche market #1), metal bodied (niche market #2) and gorgeously nostalgic (niche market #3), looking like something Ahab would use to track Moby Dick around the seven seas. These beauties, which, again, can only make one kind of image at one focal length, can cost upwards of $700 through Lomography.com. Companies like Lensbaby can create the same effect for around $149 and more than a few phone apps can deliver the same thrill for $2.99 or under. But the cost is almost irrelevant. What counts is how much you will actually use the thing.
You have to decide what your approach to equipment is, making a personal calculation based on what you most need to do for you. My own version of this riddle is based on how much I can do with how little, making me prefer lenses and appliances that can multi-task. However, there’ll always be days when life’s hella hectic and you just haven’t got time to scrape your own coffee foam. As usual, the answer lies in the kind of photography that snaps your personal shutter. Your pictures, your playthings.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONLY A SMALL PERCENTAGE OF OUR MIND’S INNER LIBRARY OF ACCUMULATED DATA is at the top of our consciousness. Staying aware of everything we’ve learned in our lives, every minute of the day, would obviously lead to a mental train wreck, as the vital and the trivial created an endless series of collisions between what we need to know and what we need to know right now. The brain, acting as a wonderful prioritizing network, moves information to the foreground or tucks it toward the back, as needed.
The visual patterns we’ve developed over a lifetime are also at work in how we create and interpret photographs. We know in an instant when we’ve seen something before, and so we process known objects in a kind of short-hand rather than as something we’re viewing for the first time. This allows us to make camera images that are abbreviated versions of things we first encountered long ago, images that merely suggest things, rather than delineate them in full detail. Call it abstraction, call it minimalism, heck, call it a ham sandwich if that helps. It merely means that we can use our brain vaults to show parts of things, and count on our memories to recognize those things solely from the parts.
Focus is but one such way of supplying visual information to the brain, and its selective use allows the photographer to convey the idea of an object without “spelling it out”, or showing it in absolutely documentarian terms. In the image above, our collective memory of the contours and details of a dollar bill are so deeply ingrained that we don’t actually need to see all of its numbers, letters, and images in full definition. Focus thus becomes an accent, a way of highlighting some features of a subject while downplaying others.
It may be that, in photographing selective aspects of objects rather than showing their every detail, we are teaching the camera to act like the flashing fragments of memory that our mind uses to transmit information….that is, teaching a machine to see in the code that we instinctively recognize. Is all interpretation just an attempt to ape the brain’s native visual language? Who knows? All that we really have to judge an image by is the final result, and its impact upon other viewers like ourselves.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
CHOICES ABOUT FOCUS MIGHT JUST BE AMONG THE MOST IMPORTANT DECISIONS that a photographer will face. Clarity, sharpness, precision, call it what you might, focal crispness is a crucial determinant in the creation of an image, no less than light and subject matter. And it’s one of the easiest factors to manage, available to any one from the humblest point-and-shooter to master technicians on the Hubbell telescope.
There is a tendency for us to mentally default to an idea of “sharpness” when we hear the word focus, as if the only way to faithfully reproduce reality is strict adherence to that standard. But photography has never really been about reality, any more than painting or prose. We can’t help but add some small interpretive something to the process of making a picture, even if we believe a machine is largely in charge of the process. Amazingly, with very little effort, we can change the perception of an image by tiny adjustments in what is clear and what remains hazy or soft, straying selectively from the arbitrary sharpness standard.
Some subjects are rendered too coldly, too clinically, when subjected to razor focus, so that what you may gain in documentary detail you lose in intimacy, or in that undefinable feeling of being close. Applying this line of reasoning to my personal affection for architecture, there are buildings where the hard look of precision is perfectly suited to the subject; jutting skyscrapers, massive bridges, towering monuments, and the like. But put me in a small town, where the entire space feels sealed off from time itself, and the look, at least for me, becomes softer. Details take a back seat to feelings, and the harsh light of midday gives way to a soft, dreamy haze at late afternoon. The secrets of side lots, alleys and back yards become scavenger hunts. In both the big and small cities, focus is the key element in the creation of the image. And, also, in both cases, an advance visualization of the final result dictates exactly the degree of focus required.
Lenses and cameras possess wonderful technical properties that can deliver a slew of exotic effects. Still, with virtually no expense or fuss, a smarter mastery of focus is a decisive, even dramatic factor in helping a photograph develop its most effective language.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WINDOW TO THE SOUL: that’s the romantic concept of the human eye, both in establishing our emotional bonds with each other and, in photography, revealing something profound in portraiture. The concept is so strong that it is one of the only direct links between painting (the way the world used to record emotional phenomena) and photography, which has either imitated or augmented that art for two full centuries. Lock onto the eyes, we say, and you’ve nailed the essence of the person.
So let’s do a simple comparison experiment. In recent years, I’ve begun to experiment more and more with selective-focus optics such as the Lensbaby family of art lenses. Lensbabies are unabashedly “flawed” in that they are not designed to deliver uniform focus, but, in fact, use the same aberrations that we used to design out of lenses to isolate some subjects in intensely sharp areas ( so-called “sweet spots”) surrounded by gradually increasing softness.
As a great additional feature, this softness can even occur in the same focal plane as a sharply rendered object. That means that object “A”, five feet away from the camera, can be quite blurry, while object “B”, located just inches to the side of “A”, and also five feet from the camera, can register with near-perfect focus. Thus, Lensbaby lenses don’t record “reality”: they interpret mood, creating supremely subjective and personal “reads” on what kind of reality you prefer.
Art lenses can accentuate what we already know about faces, and specifically, eyes…that is, that they remain vital to the conveyance of the personality in a portrait. In the first sample, Marian’s entire face takes on the general softness of the entire frame, which is taken with a Lensbaby Sweet 35 lens at f/4 but is not sharply focused in the central sweet spot. In the second sample, under the same exposure conditions, there is a conscious effort to sharpen the center of her face, then feather toward softness as you radiate out from there.
The first exposure is big on mood, with Marian serving as just another “still life” object, but it may not succeed as a portrait. The second shot uses ambient softness to keep the overall intimacy of the image, but her face still acts as a very definite anchor. You “experience” the picture first in her features, and then move to the data that is of, let’s say, a lower priority.
Focus is negotiated in many different ways within a photograph, and there is no empirically correct approach to it. However, in portrait work, it’s hard to deny that the eyes have it, whatever “it” may be.
Windows to the soul?
More like main clue to the mystery.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ACROSS THE LAST TWO CENTURIES HAVE CAPITALIZED ON ONE OF THEIR MEDIUM’S BEST TRICKS, the ability to freeze time, the sensation of carving out micro-seconds of reality and preserving them, like ancient scarabs trapped in amber. The thing known as “now”, with the aid of the camera, became something called “forever”, as things which were, by nature, fleeting were granted a kind of immortality. Events became exhibits, things to be studied or re-lived at our whim.
And yet, even as we extract these frozen moments, we mess around the edge of the illusion a bit, making still pictures also convey a sense of motion. Focus is a prime example of this retro-fitting of technique. No sooner had photography evolved the technical means to render sharp images than shooters began to put a little soft imprecision back into their pictures, by a variety of means: slow shutter speeds, time exposures, manual shaking, delayed flashes, and selective focus. Of all these techniques, at least for me, selective focus has proven to be the hardest to master.
Changing the messaging of a photographic story by using focus to isolate some elements and downplay others has always called for real practical knowledge of the workings of lenses and how they create focus as an effect. Recently, digital manipulation has allowed shooters to re-order the focal priorities of a shot after it’s taken, and in just the past few years, commercially available specialty lenses have allowed photographers to pre-select where and when focus will occur in an image, using it as interpretively as color or exposure.
I like to use the Lensbaby family of variable-focus lenses for what I call “flexible freeze” situations, times when focus can be massaged to create the illusion of speed. In the above shot, taken in a high-volume cafe, the small center of tight focus fans out to a near streaky quality at the outer edges of the picture. No one person is rendered sharp enough for features to register, or matter. What’s important here is the sensation of a busy lunch rush, which actually would be diminished if everything was in uniform focus.
Sharpness is certainly desirable in most cases for a strict re-creation of literal reality, but photography has never merely been a recording process. Focus can produce useful abstractions or atmospheres in a shot, so long as the effect serves the story. If it doesn’t help the image speak better, even a flexible freeze can quickly become a tiresome gimmick. Matching tools to goals is what good photography does best.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MORE SHOTS, MORE CHOICES: Photography really is as simple as that. The point has been hammered home by expert and amateur alike since before we could say “Kodak moment”: over-shooting, snapping more coverage from more vantage points, results in a wider ranger of results, which, editorially, can lead to finding that one bit of micro-mood, that miraculous mixture of factors that really does nail the assignment. Editors traditionally know this, and send staffers out to shoot 120 exposures to get four that are worthy of publication. It really, ofttimes, is a numbers game.
For those of us down here in the foot soldier ranks, it’s rare to see instances of creative over-shoot. We step up to the mountain or monument, and wham, bam, there’s your picture. We tend to shoot visual souvenirs: see, I was there, too. Fortunately, one of the times we do shoot dozens upon dozens of frames is in the chronicling of our families, especially the day-to-day development of our children. And that’s vital, since, unlike the unchanging national monument we record on holiday, a child’s face, especially in its earlier years, is a very dynamic subject, revealing vastly different features literally from frame to frame. As a result, we are left with a greater selection of editing choices after those faces dissolve into other faces, after which they are gone in a thrilling and heartbreaking way.
One humbling thing about shooting kids is that, after they have been around a while, you realize that you might have caught something essential, months or years ago, during an event at which you just felt like you were reacting, racing to catch your quarry, get him/her in focus, etc. A feeling of always trying to catch up. It’s one of the only times in our own lives that we shoot like paparazzi. This might be something, better get it. I’ll sort it out later. The process is so frenetic that some images may only reveal their gold several miles down the road.
Not the sharpest image I ever shot, but look at that face. Slow shutter to compensate for the dim light. 1/40 sec., f/3.2, ISO 200, 35mm.
My grandson is now entering kindergarten. He’s reading. He’s a compact miniature of his eventual, total self. And, in recently riffing through images of him from early five years ago (and yes, I was sniffling), I found an image where he literally previews the person I now know him to be. This image was always one of my favorite pictures of him, but it is more so now. In it, I see his studious, serious nature, and his intense focus, along with his divine vulnerability and innocence. Technically, the shot is far from perfect, as I was both racing around to catch him during one of his impulse-driven adventures and trying to master a very new lens. As a result, his face is a little soft here, but I don’t know if that’s so bad, now that I view it with new eyes. The light in the room was itself pretty anemic, leaking through a window from a dim day, and running wide open on a 50mm f/1.8 lens at a slow 1/40 was the only way I was going to get anything without flash, so I risked misreading the shallow depth of field, which I kinda did. However, I’ll take this face over the other shots I took that day. Whatever I was lacking as a photographer, Henry more than compensated for as a subject.
Final box score: the boy in the ball cap hit it out of the park.